Champlain Ethics

Peter Wood

        The University of Vermont is looking for a “student life professional” for its Center for Student Ethics and Standards. That sounds like a wholesome line of work. When a student asks if it would be OK to pay her roommate to write her term paper for her, you gently explain that while free enterprise is commendable, plagiarism is not. But some situations are ethically tricky. What do you do if the student comes from a culture in which plagiarism is a sign of respect? Where it is a way of honoring your friends? This requires cultural sensitivity. 

                Not just anybody would know that. That’s presumably why UVM is looking for a degreed, experienced student life professional for the position. An amateur could bungle a challenge like this. 

                This topic comes to the National Association of Scholars from an Argus volunteer, in this case a graduate student who is scanning the job openings in hopes of spotting a suitable position and is a bit discouraged by a certain phrase that amounts to a warning, “Traditionalists need not apply.”

                In its ad for the position in the Chronicle of Higher Education, UVM exercises great care to avoid ending up with candidates whose sense of professionalism does not include the right kind of progressive outlook. This is why the ad mentions the required commitment to diversity five times, in various forms, not including two separate declarations of UVM’s own affirmative action commitments. Here is the complete text. The bracketed numbers are my additions: 


The University of Vermont

Student Life Professional

Center for Student Ethics & Standards

                The University of Vermont, established in 1791, is located 90 miles south of Montreal between the Adirondack and Green Mountains on the shores of Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont, a city of 50,000, consistently recognized for its quality of life, from outdoor recreation to cultural events. UVM, with over 85,000 alumni, is a comprehensive research university comprising eight schools and colleges, a Graduate College, and a College of Medicine and offers its employees competitive salaries, outstanding benefits and a superior academic workplace.

                The University of Vermont is seeking a Student Life Professional for the Center for Student Ethics and Standards to co-coordinate operations of the University Civic & Judicial program. The Student Life Professional will serve as liaison to Residential Life; Assist with campus education of Rights and Responsibilities; Serve as a Hearing Officer for upper level cases within Center for Student Ethics & Standards; [1] Oversee Intergroup Dialogue Program.

                Master's degree in Student Personnel, Higher Education or related field and one year related experience working with Judicial Affairs, Residential Life or other campus life experience or an equivalent combination required.

                [2] Demonstrated commitment to diversity and [3] fostering a collaborative multicultural environment is required. Conflict mediation or counseling experience and knowledge of legal issues and case law related to judicial affairs and student rights highly desirable.

                [4] Demonstrated commitment to diversity and [5] fostering a collaborative multicultural environment is required
For further information, or to apply with electronic application, resume, cover letter, and a list of references for #032569, visit our Web site at: Tel: 802-656-3150

        Review of applications begins immediately and will continue until suitable candidates are found. The University of Vermont is an [6] Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action Employer. [7] Applications from women and people from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds are encouraged.

        Note that 4 and 5, which make up a sentence fragment, just duplicate 2 and 3, which already duplicate each other. I take this as not entirely accidental. It is evidence of just how eager the UVM diversicrats were to make their point that making it twice wasn’t enough. Making it four times was better.

                The first item mentioning the “Intergroup Dialogue Program” may not be transparent to ordinary readers, but NAS investigator Tom Wood hacked his way through the forest of jargon a year ago and reported in some depth on what this means. Basically, Intergroup Dialogue is a program that tries to accentuate differences between racial and ethnic groups on campus and to reinforce racial identity as a step towards justifying the ideology of multiculturalism. You can’t have “dialogue” between identity groups unless people assent to seeing themselves as members of such groups. So in the name of overcoming differences, the “facilitators” of Intergroup Dialogue work hard to stimulate and augment existing differences, and, if necessary, fabricate new ones. This is called “respect for diversity.”   


                It is impossible to tell from this advertisement alone if the University of Vermont has anything like the notorious program the University of Delaware rolled out in fall 2007, and then suspended when the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) drew attention to it. But the existence of an “Intergroup Dialogue Program” at UVM is certainly a diagnostic sign that illiberal ideology and indoctrination have found a home in UVM’s student life program. Perhaps we will hear from someone on campus who can give us a more detailed account of what lies behind this ominous advertisement that seems to suggest that “student ethics” at UVM are somehow twisted around doctrines that promote racial (and other kinds of group identity) resentment as a tool of “community building.”

                The over-insistence on candidates’ commitment to diversity and multiculturalism in UVM ad is worrisome, both because it thrusts forward one element of campus life out of proportion to others, and because it leaves so many important matters in eclipse.   Mention “student ethics and standards” on campus, and what ought to come to mind is the epidemic of academic misconduct that afflicts most of higher education. But there is not a word or even an allusion in the ad to combating plagiarism, cheating, and fraud. Do academic ethics get assigned to a different department? But this person oversees “Student Ethics and Standards.” It is hard to figure. 

                There are several other issues that a naïve outsider might assume would be central to an office of Student Ethics and Standards. If you know much about campus life these days, you know that most campuses have epidemic levels of sexually transmitted diseases. Might this be a topic for an expert in “Student Ethics and Standards?”   After all, that epidemic persists because of rampant promiscuity and the heedless willingness of infected individuals to have sexual relations with others. But if the administration at UVM glimpses an ethical issue there, it is apparently too minor to warrant mention in the ad or on the website. Much the same could be said about drug use and, more generally, the responsibility of adults to help students reach some understanding of the need for prudence and self-control. In my many years in college and university administration, I dealt repeatedly with students who put themselves and others at stupid risk: it was “elevator surfing” (riding on the top of elevators) one year; throwing milk cartons off the roof of a high rise another year.   The ethical principle in such cases is not simply, “Don’t be reckless,” but rather, “Learn how to influence people around you so that they too will sense that recklessness isn’t cool.”   Since most of that recklessness comes from young men, perhaps the ethics can be subsumed under the term of Harvey Mansfield’s recent book, Manliness.  

                Finally, in a sunnier world, I’d say “Student Ethics and Standards” might also be an area in which responsible adults help students learn something about why it is wrong to bully, browbeat, and intimidate people who disagree with your strongly held opinions, or to ostracize dissenters. Needless to say, none of these themes are mentioned or alluded to in the UVM advertisement.  To the contrary, the reverberating language of “commitment” to diversity and multiculturalism suggests that UVM sides with the bullies. 

                But perhaps this unfair to UVM. It is advertising for someone to work with the Intergroup Dialogue Program. Possibly the Center for Student Ethics and Standards has a division of labor in the vineyards of ethics and standards, and we can find these other ethical matter addressed by other specialists. To some extent, this is true. The website of Center for Student Ethics and Standards says the Center promotes “the developing character, conscience, citizenship, civility, and individual and social responsibility of our students.”   It seeks to provide students with “the tools needed for success in a pluralistic society by providing feedback about behaviors that both enhance and harm the academic community.”    That gratuitous adjective “pluralistic” is presumably there to remind us that UVM isn’t going to be, like, judgmental or something.    The Center divides its work into four units: the Civic & Judicial Program, the Academic Integrity Program, the Intergroup Dialogue Program, and the Alternative Dispute Program. 

               UVM thus cuts the pie of ethics into four parts, which might be translated as pertaining to violations of University behavioral rules, violations of University academic rules, promotion of multicultural orthodoxy, and defusing personal squabbles. The behavioral rules are codified, as they are at almost every college or university, in a Code of Students Rights and Responsibilities, although unlike UVM, most such codes still include the apostrophe on possessive nouns. UVM’s code includes some of the desiderata I noted as missing in the advertisement. Thus the University does have policies against physically harming or threatening students, “any actual or threatened non-consensual sexual act,” stalking, domestic abuse, theft, embezzlement, etc. UVM bans the possession of “weapons” and “other dangerous devices.” It frowns on arson. It prohibits pets and littering. It even has a rule that would prohibit throwing milk carton from the top of high rises, genteelly phrased as “Causing any object to be ejected from windows, roofs, or balconies of University-owned or leased buildings.” It prohibits fraudulently altering student records, fake IDs, impersonating university officials, and defecating in public. Flashing is verboten. Bookies aren’t welcome. Disrupting a class can get you into trouble.         

                   It is an interesting list that gives the impression that UVM has thought a lot about particular forms of campus mischief, but has found little substance to fill in behind the grand arch of rhetoric with which the Code commences—that stuff about “developing character, conscience, citizenship, civility, and individual and social responsibility of our students.”   Do UVM students develop character by learning that they shouldn’t keep pets, they should avoid burning the place down, and they had best attend to some bodily functions in private?

          Again, I may inadvertently be scanting a more robust conception of ethics and responsibility hidden somewhere in the Green Mountains of the UVM website. I’ve checked many places but I haven’t read the entire site. The ambitious reader who wants to check my exploratory path and to pursue further the repositories of UVM wisdom on conscience, citizenship, civility, and individual and social responsibility can follow these links: 


The Academic Integrity Program

The Intergroup Dialogue Program

The Alternative Dispute Program

Center for Cultural Pluralism

Center for Health and Wellbeing

Center for Teaching and Learning

Counseling Center

Learning Cooperative

Office of Multicultural Affairs

Residential Life

Department of Student Life

Office of Sustainability


                But I am left with the lingering impression that UVM cares a whole lot more about “diversity” than it cares about student character. Why?        

                    In the case of a particular university such as UVM, I don’t know for sure, but it is at least worth mentioning the broader ideological and cultural context. Six years ago, I published an article titled “Proven Commitment to Diversity” that drew attention to the use of that phrase in advertisements for deans, provosts, and presidents. At that time, I took it as evidence of how deeply entrenched racialized thinking and diversity had become in higher education. The universities were putting an ideological litmus test into the appointments of senior administrators. One of my readers sent me two t-shirts with “proven commitment to diversity” emblazoned on them, as armor I suppose. That was before the Supreme Court in the Gratz and Grutter cases decided that colleges and universities could indeed employ racial preferences in admissions, provided they justified them in the name of “diversity” and used a modicum of tact. (“Wholistic assessment” in; admissions points for skin color out.) 

                In its June 2003 decision in Grutter, written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the Court included several other stipulations that, if higher education had taken them seriously, would have impeded the business-as-usual approach to “diversity.”   Those stipulations have been widely ignored by colleges and universities as they have continued to entrench the pursuit of “diversity” as though advancing this ideology were the university’s primary mission. 

                But that’s not quite right. “Diversity” was simply the first wave of anti-rationalist doctrines that have swept into power in American higher education. Back in 1978, Justice Lewis Powell launched “diversity” as a rationale for racial preferences in college admissions with his eccentric opinion in the Bakke case. Powell’s view was that racial preferences would work to enhance the intellectual liveliness of classes (even lecture classes) by some kind of indescribable atmospheric alchemy. Universities, which had quite different reasons for pursuing racial preferences, were quick to seize Powell’s rationale but were left with a quizzical concept that had no empirical support at all. That meant supports of “diversity” either had to obfuscate the issue or begin to invent forms of educational benefit to fill in the gap between official rationalization and campus reality.

                Intergroup Dialogue is one of the daughters of this effort, an ingenious attempt to conjure something educational out of the diversity doctrine by making identity groups the center of attention.    Key to this approach is the belief that “experience” matters more than ideas—and that is the link in the chain to a whole cluster of campus ideologies that view with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility the core principles of higher education: rational inquiry, objective weighing of the evidence, and attempts to overcome merely personal perspective.   The sustainability movement, the student life emphasis on “the whole person,” and the demotion of literacy in favor of ease with the electronic meta-environment each have strident partisans whose basic pitch is that the university’s traditional emphasis on intellectual discipline and maturation as a rational thinker is a dead end, and that something newer, richer, more complete, more fulfilling—and morally better— has suddenly become available. 

                Also available is an open position at a universitybetween the Adirondack and Green Mountains on the shores of Lake Champlain. Available for someone willing to make the right commitments.   This is troubling for a lot of reasons, not least because it points to a university that has largely ceased to offer students genuine intellectual freedom. Rather, it offers an immersion in rebellion against a collection of phantom (and now largely imaginary) foes: racism, heedless exploitation of the environment, imperialism, overweening science, etc.   The rebellion brings with it the pleasures of belonging both to identity groups and to a movement that credits itself with superior insight and virtue. 

                It is a widespread development and UVM appears to exemplify the trend.

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